Control, cooperative, community

This is the collaborative housing dream: A temperate forest landscape, a fresh water source, a clearing open to the sun. Some winter mornings heavy mist rolls through the valley, some summer afternoons are so dry and still that the only noises are flies and occasionally falling tree bark, one week it rains till the tank over-flows. We work harmoniously within orbits of daily weather, seasonal harvest, and long-term plans. We grow food and build shelter. Ten huts with Passivhaus design, luxuriously spaced, connected by paths, friendship and rosters. We are in Tasmania, or Gippsland, or the NSW hinterland, we haven't decided yet because we keep forgetting about the dream for months and then reignite it in a flurry of text messages or beers. Somewhere between prepper plan and digital nomadism, the dream is vague, but the motivation feels urgent.

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What is collaborative housing?

Collaborative housing is intentionally shared housing. Residents participate in the design, they share funding, and manage the community through agreed and reciprocal relationships. The model has international and historical recognition, for example:

  • The Coops of the Bronx, union-sponsored ‘fortress for the working class’ [1] established in the 1920s by Jewish families, later housing black families too. Architect Daniel Libeskind grew up here, following his earlier childhood kibbutz experience.

  • The growth of cohousing in 1960s Denmark, responding to the view that communities were better suited to raising children than the conventional nuclear family. [2]

  • The spread of this Danish model to 1980s USA upper middle classes as a lifestyle decision, “slow to diffuse beyond a demographically narrow following”. [3]

Recent interest, including in Australia, sees potential for collaborative housing models to deliver greater affordability. Beyond being a middle-class initiative, some hope it can help address social isolation and the dearth of options of affordable, well-located housing, especially for the growing cohort of older low income women.

Some models of collaborative housing include:

  • Deliberative design, where future residents are actively involved in the design and delivery of a multi-unit building.

  • Cooperative tenancy, where residents formally manage the tenancy.

  • Conversions, where existing dwellings (or large gardens / farms) are converted to accommodate additional dwellings and shared facilities.

Collaborative housing in Australia has remained a niche market because of lack of awareness, the absence of trusted and familiar tools, concerns about privacy, security, concerns about legal ownership. Collaborative housing is niche because of dominant assumptions about housing as an individual wealth store, because of a reluctance to commit to communal management responsibilities, misalignment with a DIY dogma, and because the process is long and hard: securing land, obtaining permits, accessing capital for development and attracting enough residents who will stick with the process to the end.

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Searching for community / searching for control. At the core of the personal urge for collaborative housing is the eternal search for community. We find our people, we live with them. 

The idea of community is the battle for the heart and soul of sociology. It’s contentious. If we are in, then who is excluded, and who decides. The idea of community feels friendly but it’s easy to be generous and sacrifice individual freedoms for the greater good specifically of those we love, or those who will return the favour, or those who are like us.

Community is not an entity or even an idea, it’s a spectrum between alone and the world, a constant cultural obsession.

Considering the spectrum between alone and the world:

At the far edge of the spectrum, we are alone: Complete independence and self-responsibility. 85 episodes of the TV show Alone demonstrate the mental resilience and technical skill required to survive in the Arctic or Patagonia with no human contact for months. Some build (a yurt! a sauna! a canoe!) some hunker down and conserve calories (wait it out, trapping mice, eating slugs, till they are the last man standing for the $1million prize). The experiment ends; it’s not viable or desirable except as a short term challenge, a life event not life. Alone also shows us the contestants’ lives before the show and we see army veterans, professional survivalists, trappers, natural healers, modern homesteaders, men with young families pursuing a self-sufficient life in the cracks and fringes of the North American continent, some simply trying to survive in this world, some preparing for a dangerous future where they are called on to protect and feed their families.

This is not a recent response to a mid-pandemic, climate-crisis-riven, post-Trump, post-GFC, post-9/11 America. A formative book of my childhood is the 1981 young adult novel Homecoming by Cynthia Voight, telling the story of family against the world and capturing the mistrust of government and authority figures in this same fractured America. In the story, Momma, suffering mental illness, leaves four children in a car park, who must then find their way to extended family, eventually travelling from Connecticut to Maryland. The four are led by 13-year-old Dicey who rations their money on bus tickets and, memorably, on day-old donuts, and keeps them out of the control of security guards, police, social services, church leaders. They can only trust themselves. The saying it takes a village to raise a child underpins the early Danish cohousing motivation, but for those who are not approved members, the village does not provide support or care to the child, but identifies them as a problem to report to authorities.

The family: Unconditional ties, expectation of loyalty, the source of comfort as well as pain and damage. While being alone requires self-sufficiency, being in a family obligates life-long dependence, mostly structured around intergenerational dynamics. It is hard to overstate the power of the nuclear family in culture, policy, finances, and weaponised in the housing market through bank lending practices, government subsidies, capital gains tax benefits and inheritances. The financial systems of family calcify the emotional ties of dependence which then reproduce the systems, and so on.

No wonder that the next mark on this spectrum, the family of choice, feels so free; individuals sharing support, removed from the knots of obligation and intergenerational expectation. Family of choice is a broad category, embracing the diverse strong and weak ties of friendship. Unlike the intergenerational family, the needs and powers of individuals in a family of choice are more similar, so the stakes are lower, choices freer. There are rules (loyalty, reciprocity) but these rules are unspoken and deeply relational.

In groups of weaker ties, rules are spoken, written, policed. Collaborative housing rules are to be followed, but also to be made and managed. The demands of this governance is one of the common barriers to pursuing cohousing: There are too many rules, too many committees. Actively participating in shaping the equitable parameters and values of your community is a chore. But what’s the alternative?

Moving further along the spectrum, into bigger groups of weaker ties, eventually arriving at society– a collection of rules ostensibly balancing individual risk and collective good, but not always. Melbournians experience society during 18 months of Covid-19 lockdowns, crystalising and accepting new ways of living with each other in between the frenetic ‘we got this, Melbourne’, ‘govern me harder, Daddy’, and ‘Dictator Dan’ discourses.

At the very edge of the spectrum are millions of individuals following (or finding loopholes in) enforced state rules. The nature of rules in a surveillance-state dystopia is explored by Yōko Ogawa in The Memory Police.[4] In this meditative fable, the disappearance of things and the memories / meanings of them is a daily occurrence, from disappearing roses to disappearing limbs. One morning, boats disappear, and the word ‘boat’, the idea ‘boat’ dissolves from memory for the inhabitants of the island. Against this totalitarian regime of memory policing is individual resistance.

At this point, we realise the spectrum is not a long line with two extremes (here the Alone individual, there the rules of an oppressive state) but a circle. In the zone where both ends touch, we simply do not have to work together, it is easy to ignore collective ownership of consequence and action.

The individual, alone, has little wider impact and no responsibility beyond her own survival. The failures of individualised environmentalism are an outcome of this dynamic. In contrast, global and societal environmentalism struggles for the opposite reason: the rules of living and relating are pre-determined externalities and do not always reflect our values or priorities (because they reflect the motivations of lobbyists, profit, status quo power).

I wonder what’s it like, in the collaborative dream, in between alone and society, negotiating the chores of living collaboratively with others, the unsaid compromises, the vibes, the inevitable eventual asymmetry of needs, uneven dependencies, lop-sided reciprocity, outside of our control.

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[1] At Home in Utopia, film by Michal Goldman, 2008, Independent Television Service.

[2] Larsen, H.G. (2019) ‘Three phases of Danish cohousing: tenure and the development of an alternative housing form’, Housing Studies, vol.34, no.8: 1349-1371.

[3] Boyer, R.H.W and Leland, S. (2018) ‘Cohousing for whom? Survey evidence to support the diffusion of socially and spatially integrated housing in the United States’, Housing Policy Debate, vol.28, no.5: 653-667

[4] Ogawa, Y. (1994) The Memory Police, translated to English by S. Snyder, 2020, Penguin.